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Charlotte Morgan shouldn't have checked her bag for the flight from New York to Wyoming. Her layover in Denver had already been far longer than planned because of a storm that was coming in from the West Coast, and now she was-finallywaiting by a luggage carousel at the Cheyenne airport. And waiting
As her friend Karin always said, there were two kinds of luggagecarry-on and lost. And hers appeared to be of the lost variety.
December 21 meant it was almost the festive season, but her spirits were definitely on the low side.
This airport mess was typical of the dismal way her luck had been running lately.
Let's see. She'd had to arrange for her aunt Geneva to move into assisted living. Dealing with that, mostly by email and over the phone, hadn't been easy. Then there was the fact that a stranger was staying at Geneva's house, the house Charlotte had grown up in. Of course, she'd questioned her aunt about Mrs. Klozz, asking how she and the mysterious visitor had met, but Geneva's answers had been consistently vague, even evasive.
Worried, Charlotte had called Spencer Hogan, an old friend and Mustang Creek's chief of police, to request a background check. He'd chuckled and said that wouldn't be necessary; Mrs. Klozz was, as he'd put it, "all right."
Finally, Charlotte had decided to drop the subject. She'd meet the woman soon enough and form her own opinion.
Despite all this, she felt uneasy.
Thenjust when she'd thought things couldn't get any worseshe'd been laid off. Merry, merry Christmas.
Oh, the company, an advertising firm, had given her a generous enough severance package. Her boss had explained that budget cuts were taking a toll on everyone.
Not on him, apparently. His job seemed to be safe, unlike her own. It had taken some effort to not say something to that effect, but in truth, she just wanted to go home.
As she watched everyone retrieving luggage while hers was, predictably, nowhere in sight, she realized how ironic it wasas a teenager, she'd been convinced that all she wanted was to leave the small town of Mustang Creek, become successful, meet the right man and never look back. She'd done it. She'd left. She'd gotten a great job. She'd met the right man. But she sure had looked back.
There was one other hopeful passenger waiting, and they exchanged a shrug of commiseration. The carousel was still moving, so maybe
Yep, she'd left the small town. Got the dream joband lost it. Met one Dr. Jaxon Locke, fell in love, and that hadn't worked, either.
The other passenger won the lottery and his case slid down.
"Happy holidays," he said in sympathy as he hurried away.
a Christmas miracle! Her suitcase actually bumped outno more than two seconds before she was going to head over to the airline counter to fill in the claim formand began the journey toward her. Yay! Clean underwear for Christmas.
Aunt Geneva would tell her to count her blessings, and as she heaved her bag off the carousel and wheeled it toward the rental car area, Charlotte actually smiled. Things were already looking up. Oh, she still had to make the drive home with a giant storm roaring in, coasting a clipper from the Arctic, but at least she had her clothing. She'd need to make arrangements to have everything else sold or shipped home but would deal with that headache later. Her ridiculously expensive apartment had been sublet and all the rest of it was in storage.
The snow was coming in sideways when she finally reached her rental car. Nothing like driving an unfamiliar rig in bad weather, she thought, as she climbed into the midsize sedan and turned the key in the ignition.
She was on her way home.
After seven years in New York City.
Back in the day, she'd craved the city life, but now she simply wanted to get back to that big old drafty house, that comfortable house, where she'd grown up. Mustang Creek was the kind of small town where, if you sneezed, people were concerned you might be coming down with something and offered you their grandmother's favorite remedy. She wanted the fragrance of grass in the summer, the view of the Tetons, the old grape arbor in the backyard.
She wanted home.
Geneva needed her, Charlotte mused as she tried to figure out how to turn on the windshield wipers. But she might need this change even more. Losing her job wasn't a financial catastrophe since her aunt had taught her a lot about saving her money. She hated that the vibrant woman she remembered was slowly fading. Still, Charlotte viewed her own changed circumstances as a positive in some ways. They'd be able to spend time together. Quality time. Not just the fly-in, fly-out visits of the past few years. She could take care of the house, maybe use some of her savings to fix it up. The place had needed a new roof for at least ten years. She'd offered to pay for it more than once, but Aunt Geneva, her only living relative, had declined.
Stubborn pride was a family trait, no question about that. She came by hers honestly.
She should've looked more closely at the forecast, she decided when whirls of snow, like errant ghosts, circled her car. Almost no one else was traveling, which was just as well, since she could barely see enough to stay in her own lane. Other than the dim lights of one car some distance behind her, she had the road to herself.
She was happy that she'd grabbed coffee and a sandwich in the Denver airport, althoughexhausted as she wasshe could've used another coffee right now. She slowed her speed even more as she squinted at the increasing whiteout conditions. There was one other immediate problem she hadn't considered. She didn't have keys to the house. Aunt Geneva had been a seamstress, working at home; she was a wizard with her machine and had probably made most of the wedding dresses in Bliss County for the past half century. So Charlotte had never really needed one.
To be honest, she wasn't even sure there were keys. The doors with their beautiful faceted glass panels were original, and to her knowledge the locks had never been replaced. Maybe Aunt Geneva had given keys to the friend who was watching her house and taking care of her beloved cat and dog, but it was already after ten, and she wasn't going to get to Mustang Creek anytime soon at this speed.
It seemed wrong to go pounding on the door at midnight when she didn't even know this Millicent Klozz. She certainly didn't want to wake the poor woman from a sound sleep.
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" came on the radio, and Charlotte turned up the volume. She loved the song, which brought back memories of getting tucked into bed on Christmas Eve, Geneva reading her a story and forbidding her to go downstairs until daybreak.
She'd always heeded this admonitionexcept for the year she was seven. She'd gone downstairs in the middle of the nightnot all the way down that creaky staircase because she'd known she'd get caughtand seen the packages under the tree. When she'd heard Aunt Geneva get upfor a drink of water, judging by the running tapCharlotte had taken a small liberty and peeked at the gifts. Most of them had her name on them.
Then she'd climbed into her aunt's bed and nestled there, eyes wide. When Geneva had rolled over, she'd given a small scream, obviously not expecting a small face right next to hers, dimly visible in the glow of the hallway night-light.
"Santa was here," Charlotte had informed her excitedly.
"I hope he brought me a new heart," Geneva had replied, after gasping and pressing her hand to her chest. "Lord, child, you startled me."
"He came to our house!"
Charlotte still remembered Geneva hugging her, remembered the warmth of her arms, the loving smile on her face. "Of course he did."
Negotiating a slick turn, Charlotte wondered what her aunt had sacrificed to make sure Santa came to their house every year. As a child she hadn't comprehended the effort that went into raising a toddler. Especially if you'd inherited that responsibility in your late fifties, because your much younger sister and her husband had died tragically in a train accident. Geneva had been single and inexperienced with tantrums and packing lunches, and later on, cheerleading practice and track meets, sleepovers with giggling girls.
Her aunt had done it all unf linchingly, and when it had come time for college, given her guidance, but let her choose. Now it was Charlotte's turn to give back.
Jaxon Locke had been chased all the way from Idaho by the storm and it was starting to catch up with him, mentally and physically.
He had no idea if he was being an idiot or not, going to Mustang Creek. After their breakup just over a year ago, he'd continued, though casually, to follow Charlotte Morgan on social mediathey'd "friended" each other. A few days before, he'd checked in on her page and discovered that she'd left the firm. Even if she hadn't mentioned her plans to return to Wyoming, he would have known where she was headed.
No part of him believed it was a coincidence that both he and Charlotte had ties to Mustang Creek. She'd been raised there, and he'd been hired by his friend Nate Cameron to work as a veterinarian in Nate's practice.
He'd met CharlotteCharlie, he called herthrough an online dating service. Sort of.
Except he'd cheated. Sort of. He'd sat next to the girlfriend of one of his college roommates at a cocktail party. The event had taken place in midtown Manhattan. He had been working in a nearby Connecticut town at the time, and he'd come into the city for his friend Remy's wedding. This woman had studied him over the rim of her cosmopolitan glass, then asked, "Single?"
No doubt she'd made that assumption because while he'd taken the time to pick out what he considered a nice shirt, he'd still worn jeans and boots. His best boots, expensive, but he'd probably looked like a cowboy. "Not married, not dating," he'd answered wryly. "The invitation said casual dress. I took it to heart."
Her lips had twitched. "You could use a haircut, too, but the look you've got going suits your style. Put you in an Armani suit, give you a five-o'clock shadow and you could be on the cover of a magazine. You're from where?"
She'd gotten right to the point. "I know just the girl for you."
He'd doubted that, not only because she was dressed in three-inch heels, wore too much perfume and spent most of the time talking on her cell phone, but also because they were strangers. "You don't know anything about me."
"Sure I do. Remy's mentioned you before. You're an animal doctor, right? You and Remy and a bunch of other guys all met at Ohio State."
He'd nodded. "We shared a house. And, yes, I'm a veterinarian."
She'd leaned in a little closer. "I work with this girl who's beautiful, smart and hates the city as much as you obviously do but won't admit it. Loves animals and is from a small town. Here's the catch. She refuses blind dates from friends. I do know that she's recently joined an online dating service. Let me write down her name for you, plus the site info. It won't hurt to check out her profile." Her smile was audacious. "Don't tell her I had anything to do with it."
"Since I don't know your name, that would be impossible."
"We'll do official introductions if the two of you actually get together, okay?"
"Okay with me," he'd said, figuring nothing would come of this odd conversation anyway.
"She's a Wyoming girl, Mr. Cowboy. I have a feeling you'll ride off for bluer skies and fresher air soonand I think she will, too."
The deliberately mysterious woman's cell had rung again and while she'd answered it, she'd scribbled down Charlotte Morgan on a napkin, along with the name of a popular dating site.
Even though he'd basically just been playing along, passing the time, Jax had realized he was curious enough to take a look at Ms. Morgan's profile.
He'd never even considered online dating. Later, when he got home, he'd typed in the information and, eventually, been completely
well, the English would have called it gobsmacked.
Charlotte Morgan was beautiful, all right. More than beautiful.